Calling all sportswriters: Don't forget the 'Catholic angle' in those Notre Dame football stories

December can be lots of things to different people. For Christians, it’s the season of Advent that culminates with Christmas. Jews have Hannukkah. Sports fans have … lots and lots of college football leading into the bowl games that really matter.

The College Football Playoff introduced just a few years back has added that extra layer of excitement to the Bowl season and Heisman trophy contest that highlights the end of every season. The quartet of teams vying to be national champions this year are Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Notre Dame.

While Alabama is ranked No. 1 and the heavy favorite to win the title, the team that stands out from this group for reasons not at all associated with sports is Notre Dame. For sportswriters out in the field covering games and feature stories (and, more importantly, the editors who dictate that coverage), let’s not forget what can be called the “Catholic angle” to any Notre Dame team.

To cut to the chase: There’s more to this team than its iconic golden helmets, deep-blue uniforms and movies like “Rudy.”

That’s not to say the Catholic rituals and traditions associated with the school’s football team have been totally overlooked over the years. Michael Leahy, author and award-winning writer for The Washington Post, wrote a column in 2013 about the Catholic connection to the Division I school in South Bend, Indiana. Here is an excerpt from that piece:

If there is a single reason for Notre Dame’s enduring mystique, it is that — putting aside the perspectives of its alumni, students, professors and administrators — the place exists in the American psyche solely as a football team. The school has a top-notch faculty and notable graduates who never played a down, but who in Ann Arbor, Los Angeles or Tuscaloosa cares about that? To them, Notre Dame is the locker room where Knute Rockne exhorted his troops before they stampeded the opposition. It is the Four Horsemen. It is Ronald Reagan as George Gipp. It is a place where greatness, reality and fable mingle, and few know where one ends and the others begin.

For most of the 20th century, the adoration of Notre Dame also reflected the relatively favored status of Catholicism in American culture. Despite unfounded fears over whether a Catholic president could escape the Vatican’s influence, films from the era demonstrate a largely benign perception of Catholicism. The most memorable priests from the period’s major movies possess the same saintly qualities ascribed to Notre Dame: rectitude, hearts of gold and the righteous power to knock out a foe.

Leahy’s commentary is spot on. It captures a snapshot of the school’s religious and cultural relevance to American society like few pieces about Notre Dame ever have previously or since its publication. It is the backdrop and larger context for nearly every story regarding the Fightin’ Irish‘s football program.

Now that Notre Dame is again vying for a national title — it last won one in 1988 after ending the season atop the AP/UPI poll under legendary coach Lou Holtz — that its Catholic roots and traditions are very much a story.

Leahy’s piece also dived into the rise and fall of Notre Dame’s Catholic mystique. Here’s some useful background he included in the column:

In retrospect, the ’50s and early ’60s were the zenith of Catholicism’s charm over America, and South Bend was among its beneficiaries. Charisma begat power: The team and the religion each benefited from the other’s allure. In 1956, Notre Dame became the only 2-8 team in history to see one of its players — glamorous quarterback Paul Hornung, nicknamed the “Golden Boy” — win the Heisman. By then, no other collegiate team could match the Irish’s hold on the American consciousness.

But if popular culture serves as a mirror to society’s changes, then by the early ’80s, something had shifted. Major films such as “True Confessions” and “The Verdict” depicted America’s Catholic hierarchy attempting to cover up looming scandals. The films evinced new worries about whether robed men might squelch uncomfortable truths in the interest of safeguarding the church’s image and their lofty positions.

The fictional accounts presaged real-life scandals, none as horrific as the sexual abuse of children in major American archdioceses and the subsequent coverups by priests and church hierarchies.

Notre Dame is one of very few Catholic universities with a top-tier football program. The 2013 National Championship Game (where Alabama trounced Notre Dame 42-14) prompted The Wall Street Journal on the eve of the game to give readers a behind-the-scenes look at the Catholic rituals connected to the team, even though the roster is loaded with players of other Christian denominations. The players and coaching staff, for example, attend mass before each home game on Saturdays. The key paragraph is this one:

At the heart of Notre Dame's legendary football program is a careworn balancing act. The team is unapologetically Catholic. Before every game, the Fighting Irish participate in a Mass overseen by one of the team's two appointed Catholic priests, a tradition dating back to the 1920s. At the end of that ceremony, each player receives a priest-blessed medal devoted to a Catholic saint—a different saint every game for four years. Also during the pregame Mass, players can kiss a reliquary containing two splinters that Notre Dame believes came from the cross of Jesus.

Younger writers unfamiliar with Notre Dame’s recent history would be advised to watch the ESPN 30-for-30 documentary series called Catholics vs. Convicts, which details the 1988 showdown between the Fightin’ Irish and the University of Miami. It was on October 15, 1988 when Notre Dame hosted the Hurricanes in what is widely regarded as one of the greatest games in college football history. The documentary details the game’s backstory and how it came to be dubbed “Catholics vs. Convicts.”

No, it wasn’t ESPN’s clever idea to name its documentary that. It actually came from t-shirts made by a group of entrepreneurial Notre Dame students that had the phrase emblazoned on them. 

Notre Dame’s unabashed Catholicism and its connection to its storied football team are no small thing. It means having to get out of one’s comfort zone and learn some new terminology. It means knowing the difference between an interception and intercession or a Hail Mary (the last-second attempt at a long pass for a touchdown) from a Hail Mary (the prayer).

While the examples mentioned above are great, they remain the exception when it comes to the coverage. A note to sports departments across the country and those in the national media: The “Cathiolic angle” remains a very big part of the larger story as the Fightin’ Irish prepare for their Cotton Bowl game on Dec. 29 against Clemson. Many say Notre Dame doesn’t have a chance against Clemson in that semifinal game. In other words, they don’t have a prayer. Just try telling that to the players and their devout fans. 

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